From ancient folk songs sung around fires through classical music performed to elite society to latest hits downloaded on your device, birdsong inspires human music in so many ways. We look at some examples, and also consider the question, is birdsong music?
We define bird communication as singing, even though the sounds that birds produce can be said to be quite far from what we would call a human song, or a piece of music. But whether you are aware of it or not, the music you hear these days has in all likelihood, at some point, been influenced by birds.
It makes ‘the violin become both the bird’s song and its flight’.
Composers are inspired by birdsong, imitate birdsong in compositions, some incorporate actual birdsong recordings into their work, and musicians have even recorded duets with birds: in the UK, the BBC aired its first ever outside broadcast on the 19th May 1924, when Beatrice Harrison played the cello in her garden in Oxted, Surrey, alongside singing nightingales, who had been attracted to her practicing in the days and weeks before.
One of the most famous and best-loved pieces is of course The Lark Ascending by Ralph Vaughan Williams. Based on the 1881 poem of the same name by George Meredith, this piece of music is celebrated for the way it makes “the violin become both the bird’s song and its flight”, the accurate view of Williams’ wife Ursula. Although the piece is quite short, usually around 16 minutes in duration, it is said to completely encapsulate the singing of a lark high above a field on a summer’s day, with “the silver chain of sound, of many links without a break”. Praised for its rhythmic freedom, the piece was recently performed on 15th December 2020 by British violinist Jennifer Pike, in Bristol’s Shirehampton Hall, the venue where it was first performed exactly to the day 100 years before by a pupil of Elgar’s, Marie Hall, the violinist for whom The Lark Ascending was written.
That birds inspire music from humans is in no doubt.
Another famous piece of music about a lark is Alouette, a French-Canadian children’s memory song, known as a cumulative song, where each new verse builds on the previous one. This lark, however, is not “singing till his heaven fills”, alas. This one is gradually dismembered as each verse is joyously belted out by all. The lark is informed throughout the song which part of its body it will lose next, starting with plucking feathers from its back, tail, legs, wings, and neck, before then having its eyes, beak and head removed. Each verse is boisterously interrupted with the chorus “Alouette, gentille alouette, alouette, je te plumerai” (lark, nice lark, lark I will pluck your feathers).
Now used as a French language learning tool in schools in Canada and beyond, it is believed to have originated during the French fur trade along the canals, rivers and lakes of North America. Canoes piled high with goods to exchange for furs would be paddled along for hours in end, and it is believed that this song and others like it would help the oarsmen maintain stamina, rhythm and gusto for their task, making the voyage pass, psychologically at least, much faster. French colonists of Canada also favoured the horned lark as a game bird. Why not sing about preparing it for dinner.
A bird in the hand…
On a happier note, in 2005 the unparalleled majesty that is Kate Bush released a double album called Aerial, which still ranks highly on many a critics list. The cover art, at first glance, appears to show a sunrise/set shimmering over an ocean that reflects a silhouetted panorama of limestone cliffs, the likes of which can be seen in Khao Lak National Park, Thailand. But those towering monoliths are in fact the waveform of a blackbird song superimposed over the glowing landscape. It is an arresting image and fascinating when you know what you are looking at.
Birdsong, predominantly blackbird song, cajoles, lifts and soothes throughout the album, especially the B side, A Sky of Honey. This is a single piece of music that conveys the sheer beauty of being outdoors on a summer day, opening with Prelude, where a male blackbird announces the dawn with wood pigeons, piano, and Kate’s son Bertie proclaiming “Mummy, Daddy, the day is full of birds”. The interlude, Aerial Tal, is just under two minutes of Bush mimicking – and in perfect time with – samples of birdsong, then the album concludes with the next sunrise and the title track Aerial, where Bush laughs along with another (the same?) blackbird. This is a long track, so if you just want to delight in the hilarious raucousness of it, the laughing starts at 36 mins and 35 seconds.
You can cage the singer, but not the song
That birds inspire music from humans is in no doubt, but questions have also been asked about whether birdsong can even be called music, in terms of human composition. Defining the concept of music has always been a struggle in terms of innate abilities versus capacity to learn, and objections to the suggestion that birdsong is music include the fact that birdsong is (as far as we know) hard-wired, they don’t learn other songs from other types of birds across their lives, and it performs a function in territory and courtship. Then come the counter-arguments: maybe music is hard-wired in us, we also use lyrical vocalisations for laying claim to territories, and music plays a huge part in courtship for many people, not just birds. Music shapes our existence, genetically, culturally, financially, and aesthetically.
Music plays a huge part in courtship for many people, not just birds.
Of course, there is also the issue of, “Why does it always have to be about us, does it even matter if birdsong can be classed as human music?”, but to musicologists there is value in mapping the patterns and cadences that birds create with their notes. The research has indeed thrown up some surprising parallels, and transposing birdsong into human scored music has shown that some species of birds like the pied butcher-bird include the same approach to song structure as we do, in terms of repetition, variation and relationships of pitch, and balance. In this context, where the notes didn’t come from us and we just wrote it down, birdsong is music, as it equates to our definition of it.
Whatever your opinion, if one exists, maybe next time you hear a duet of thrushes at dusk or a solo performance from a blackbird at dawn, maybe try to memorise a few notes in your head, and see if you can make a bird song for yourself.